Bucking Big Brother: Setting Appropriate Limits on Facial Recognition Technology

May 5th, 2022 | Jason Milot

The breathtaking progress of modern technology has bettered our lives in innumerable ways, but little reflection is needed to see that, for all its benefits, today’s cutting-edge technology is not entirely positive, and in many ways threatens our core humanity.

Nowhere is this clearer than with Facial Recognition Technology (FRT). Combining biometrics and artificial intelligence, FRT enables its users to identify a person by mapping their facial features and comparing this data to facial images stored in a database.

While FRT has potential benefits, the sheer scale of the harm this technology can cause, from racial profiling to full-blown dystopian mass surveillance, makes it imperative for governments to establish and enforce clearly defined limits on its use. As investors, we can help accelerate these efforts through targeted and coordinated advocacy.

The “Good”

Potential benefits of FRT include preventing terrorist attacks, overturning wrongful convictions, aiding criminal investigations, preventing school shootings, improving airport and border security, and even simple things like unlocking an iPad.

In most of these cases, however, it is extremely difficult to strike the right balance between personal privacy rights – a core pillar of a free and democratic society – and the often-competing benefit of added security. So even where FRT is arguably a positive, its use is an ethical minefield for any society that values individual liberty.

The “Bad & the Ugly”

It is easy to see how FRT can be used as a tool of oppression by authoritarian governments. China, Russia and other dictatorial regimes across the globe have incorporated this technology as a tool of Orwellian mass surveillance, enabling them to suppress free expression and quell dissent.

The use of FRT for malign purposes is not restricted to state actors. For example, apps are now available that allow users to scan uploaded photos against every available online image for potential matches. Critics worry these apps can be abused by stalkers and harassers, leaving women escaping abusive partners vulnerable. Identity theft is another major concern. For example, hackers breached U.S. Customs and Border Patrol systems in 2019, making off with a trove of facial image data and license-plate information.

Racial bias is another major problem. For example, data sets tend to overrepresent White, middle-aged men, and FRT algorithms have been shown to misidentify Asian and Black faces up to 100 times more often than White faces. Both of these failings have led to harmful legal outcomes for minorities.

Setting Boundaries

Meaningful steps are being taken to stem the potential abuse of FRT. In the U.S., a number of jurisdictions have outlawed its use by law enforcement and government agencies. In some cases, the ban has been extended to the private sector as well. Some states have either proposed or passed legislation that places limits on the collection of biometric data, and enshrined into law the need to receive informed consent from anyone targeted by FRT or related technology.

The European Data Protection Board and the European Data Protection Supervisor, Europe’s two privacy regulators, have urged lawmakers to completely ban FRT in public areas. Current legislation making its way through the European Parliament would place hard limits on biometric identification, including FRT.

Here in Canada, privacy laws recently curtailed the RCMP’s use of FRT. Last year, an investigation by the Privacy Commissioner revealed that the Mounties violated the Privacy Act in their use of Clearview AI’s FRT database. Clearview AI, a private sector company with over 3,100 law enforcement contracts in the U.S. alone, maintains a database of billions of images harvested from social media, which the RCMP used to run searches on suspects.

In a statement, the Privacy Commissioner said “the use of FRT by the RCMP to search through massive repositories of Canadians who are innocent of any suspicion of crime presents a serious violation of privacy.” A number of municipal police services were also found to have used Clearview AI, but along with the RCMP, they have stopped doing so – if for no other reason than because the firm has abandoned its operations in Canada. Importantly, the RCMP disputes the Privacy Commissioner’s finding that using Clearview AI violated the Privacy Act.

A Role for Investors

Vancity Investment Management Ltd. (VCIM), sub-advisor of the IA Clarington Inhance SRI Funds, believes investors have a responsibility to use their leverage as shareholders to advocate for positive change. That’s why we’re deeply committed – as part of our longstanding and robust program of shareholder engagement – to advancing the cause of responsible limits on FRT.

Last year VCIM signed the Investor Statement on Facial Recognition along with 51 other global institutional investors, collectively representing $4.8 trillion in assets under management. The Statement urges companies involved in FRT to:

  1. disclose the accuracy of their technology after measurement by a recognized and relevant scientific assessment institution;
  2. disclose the source(s) of their image databases and demonstrate that their technology is constantly monitored to detect algorithmic biases, particularly with respect to race, gender, or age;
  3. demonstrate proper due diligence of clients before making the technology available to them; and
  4. demonstrate that effective grievance mechanisms are in place to enable victims to report consequences and access remedies.

The Statement forms the basis of VCIM’s ongoing engagement with IBM and Cisco. Together with like-minded shareholder groups, we are urging both companies to make a firm commitment to the best practices laid out in the Statement.

Visit inhancesri.ca to learn more about Vancity Investment Management’s shareholder engagement activities.

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author's photo

Jason Milot

ESG Analyst
Vancity Investment Management Ltd.

Jason is responsible for ESG analysis and leading specific shareholder engagements. He holds an Honours B.A. in Applied Psychology from Douglas College and has completed the Responsible Investment Using ESG Factors course from the Canadian Securities Institute. He is currently a CIM candidate.